Brussels, 16/08/2015. It is quite fascinating, from this side of the Channel, to see how the so-called great and good across the political divide in Britain are lining up to lambast Jeremy Corbyn, in the wake of his surge to favourite in the Labour leadership race.
As Labour Party members and supporters cast their votes in the leadership competition this week, they are being urged to remember that Corbyn “can never shape the future” (Guardian), “shares platforms with others of dubious views” (James Bloodworth), “has defied the whip 500 times” (Guardian again), that “if he wins then Labour faces annihilation” (Tony Blair), is in fact a “closet Conservative” (The Economist), and so on ad infinitum.
It is almost as though the critics are resentful of his sudden leap to popularity, as if that achievement itself represents a dismissal of their positions as arbiters of the political direction of the left.
Which, of course, it does. Mr Corbyn’s continued appeal despite the breadth of criticism levelled against him is not really so hard to explain. It is the attraction of someone who, to many who have despaired of or considered abandoning the political process, is a plain-speaking politician who knows his own mind. Of someone who is not afraid of speaking out whatever the current political orthodoxy may be, and who has the political maturity of 32 years representing a constituency in Parliament.
To put it bluntly, why should anyone accept the opinions of discredited former Prime Ministers (Iraq and Afghanistan), media opinion (got it very wrong predicting the election outcome), former Downing Street spin doctors (Iraq again), ex-home secretaries (Blairite government members or supporters), left-wing columnists (presumably supporting one of the other candidates but not honest enough to say so) and gossip columnists (predictably against, especially if writing in conservative-leaning publications).
The range of critics lining up to attack Mr Corbyn has all the appearance of a failed political establishment desperate to discredit a man who will show up what fools they are. As if he is the first to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
When it comes to discussing economic indicators for example, this ability to stand back and refuse to be conform may well be the point. We hear repeatedly (often via government press releases that are presented unquestioned) that the recovery has started and the economy is doing well. Yet any statistician will tell you that growth levels of around one or two percent indicate nothing at all, being within the bounds of statistical error. However this idea appears to most politicians and political commentators to be a novelty.
Breath of fresh air
To many voters, whether they tend to Labour, Lib Dem or other opinions, Jeremy Corbyn is like a breath of fresh air. How welcome it is to listen to someone who says what he really thinks, as opposed to endorsing some carefully-crafted message from the party apparatchiks. I know of at least one long-time Green Party supporter who has now joined the Labour party as a consequence of this leadership campaign.
It may well be that the time for carefully crafted messages will come, but we are not at that point in the cycle of power yet. Many of Corbyn’s most vehement critics are missing the real point. He is putting forward real ideas; on austerity, on what is important in society, and on suggestions for change. He is engaging in the kind of political discussion that has been missing in England for a generation, a discussion that was so remarkable in Scotland in the debate around Scottish independence because it appeared to be extinct in these islands.
It is this kind of political transparency that is the real attraction for voters. Ironically, Mr Corbyn is likely to be as popular with Britain’s electorate as was Margaret Thatcher, who gained the support of millions of voters because she said what she thought, and hang the party orthodoxy. Margaret Thatcher was always a difficult leader to deal with, as biographies from Tory cabinet colleagues have attested, but she inspired devotion among the voting public.
Difficult colleague or not, there is no doubt that British voters like plain-speaking in their politicians. Never mind that he or she may make mistakes. To err is human, and people like to be reminded that their leaders are as fallible as they are themselves.
Political climates can change
One charge repeatedly made of Mr Corbyn is that he will make Labour unelectable as a party of government. I would like to suggest to the people making this criticism, politely, that they appear to have lost touch with the meaning of the democratic process.
My understanding of this process was that first you create policies to benefit people, and then if enough of them like the ideas, then you gain power. I didn’t think that you created future policy on the basis of what party opinion considers acceptable in the political climate at the time.
Because that prevailing political climate is like the real one. The wind can blow eastwards as it has done in recent years in the UK, but it can also blow to the west. Political climates change. More slowly than the weather perhaps, but such changes have been marked in something called the Overton window.
Nowhere is this kind of political climate change illustrated more clearly than among Britain’s fellow members of the European Union, where governments, even where nominally of the right, tend to be remarkably socialist in their policies. Few now would consider it acceptable to be without a welfare state or some form of universal healthcare, even if that provision is part public and part private. In Europe, the window has shifted westwards over the last 100 years.
The right candidate all along
Amidst all the noise and birdsong we have heard in the last week, one factor has stood out. Jeremy Corbyn’s position in the contest is justified. Looking at the other three candidates in the race begs the question – are these three individuals really the best that the whole of the Labour party can come up with to lead them? Do people imagine that any one of them is capable of standing up to David Cameron and the Tory party machine?
I think not. For me Mr Corbyn is the only candidate with the ability, and the wit, to stand across the dispatch box and garner political support. He may well be despised by the Tory classes (itself no bad thing) and feared by the financial aristocracy. But I predict that, should he win this competition and go on to lead the Labour party, we will soon start to hear again that hoary old expression, “of course I thought he was the right candidate all along.”
© Philip Hunt, 2015.